Product Design Lessons

Interface Design Sketching  |   Lesson #39

Find the Next Great Idea With Sketches

Learn to discover ideas with opportunity sketches.

Great products are built on great ideas. Early in a project’s development, we dedicate time to working through many quick ideas with sketches that communicate “what-if” scenarios to our clients. We work through lesser ideas until we discover real winners — ideas that ignite sparks that serve both our clients and their customers. And it works. “What if we used a cartoon ninja?” was so unexpected that a quick sketch reshaped an entire project. Quick sketches give us the chance to fail fast and discover opportunities — hence their name, opportunity sketches. Here’s how to discover your great ideas with paper and Sharpies.

1. Get the right materials

We start with thick Sharpies because they discourage fine detail. Early explorations aren’t the time for fine work. This is the time to rough out ideas as you think, then share those ideas with others. Also, there’s no need for expensive paper. Plain copier paper will work just as well as fancy sketchbooks, and cost less too.

2. Keep the goals in mind

Sketching without purpose is neither easy nor productive. We start by asking what the user needs or wants, how the product benefits the company that owns it, and what solutions are technically feasible. Just as opening an ocean-front resort in Arizona isn’t likely to happen, we always keep in mind that promoting a resort with hundreds of photos or live, streaming video might be beyond our grasp.

Venn diagram of business needs, user needs, and technical feasibility. Great ideas occur where they overlap.

Above: Good ideas fulfill user needs, business needs — and are possible to achieve.

3. Work quickly

Because opportunity sketches are about opening up questions, don’t spend too much time on any one idea. Get your thoughts on paper and move on. The more ideas you work through, the sooner you’ll eliminate mundane ideas and discover real gems.

Think in tiny little snippets. Each sketch should take one minute or so. You’ll want 20 to 30 per round, and expect to have several rounds with the client. Good opportunity sketches are like sparks or moments. Each is a glimpse at what might be, not what you definitely plan to create.

Don’t think in terms of layout. Rather, think about what features would help a product achieve its goals.

example of opportunity sketches

Above: Three opportunity sketches represent quick ideas.

4. Group ideas by common theme

Grouping similar ideas is the next important step. Faced with a large collection of sketches, we sift through the ideas to watch for redundant ideas and organize the sketches into a presentation for our client. Rather than discussing ideas in random order, we lead clients through a procession of thoughts that feed into each other. This helps frame the problems we want so solve, as well as helps clients react to big ideas.

5. Discuss with the client

Working through opportunity sketches with clients faces two challenges: Evaluating ideas the sketches represent and ensuring the client understands what opportunity sketches are. To both ends, don’t dwell on any one sketch too long.

You’ll almost certainly have to explain that opportunity sketches are sparks — ideas that explore problems and what will benefit both the customers and business. Design, after all, is not about looking good but getting users to respond, interact, and in many cases, to buy, sign up or otherwise act rather than passively visit a site, say “that’s nice”… and never return.

About the instructor


Ben Gremillion is a Design Writer at ZURB. He started his career in newspaper and magazine design, saw a digital future, and learned HTML in short order. He facilitates the ZURB training courses.